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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup (1853)
12 Years a Slave directed Steve McQueen (2013)
I actually made a point to seek out a book written by someone who was black, and was disappointed when multiple books I found that were about a black family yet were written by a white person. It has definitely made me realize how many popular books (popular enough to be turned into a movie, since for this blog that has to be the case) out there have been written by white men.
I have some upcoming books that are more diverse, and if you have any recommendations for books with movie adaptations, written by someone who isn’t a white male-comment down below and I’ll check it out!
Solomon Northrup is born a free man in New York state and has a wife and children. In 1841 he takes a job playing the violin for a traveling “circus” (it’s just two guys who do tricks while Northrup plays the fiddle). He goes with them down to Washington, and there he is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery and sent to Louisiana. He spends the next 12 years as a slave, during which time he has 3 owners (William Ford, John Tibeats, and Edwin Epps), though works for others when his owner loans him out. He also plays the fiddle and is often hired out for parties for which he gets paid. His last owner, named Edwin Epps, he was with for the majority of his time-10 years. This was also the worst owner, being mean, spiteful and a drunkard.
In 1852 a Canadian is helping Epps on a project and Northrup hears him talking to Epps about how slavery should be illegal. After over hearing him talk this way for a while, he trusts him enough to tell the man that he is actually a free man who has been kidnapped. The Canadian writes a letter up north, and thanks to this letter, Northrup is rescued and brought back to his family in New York. Later that same year he released this memoir telling of his time as a slave.
The movies follows the book very closely. They omitted some scenes, and changes a few minor things here and there, but it really is a faithful adaptation. The book is hard to read at times, but the movie is very hard to watch. It’s one thing to read “they whipped me so much I thought I would die”, it’s another to see it realistically portrayed on screen. I actually fast forwarded through some of the harder scenes to watch. That seems to be a trademark of McQueen though, he has only released three major motion pictures, and the first two are even more difficult and uncomfortable to watch than this one. In an interview he says that he is a happy person, so he isn’t sure why his movies end up being rather dark and that it isn’t something he does purposefully. And he says that when you’re an artist you don’t always get to choose where art takes you.
I had watched this movie when it came out on DVD, but I only remembered bits and pieces. The main thing I remember was just the heaviness of it.
I have no complaints at all with the acting. Everyone, even the smaller roles did an amazing job. One of those movies that really pulls you in. Thanks to the acting, script, and directing. It also has beautiful cinematography.
Chiwetel Ejiofor does an incredible job playing Solomon. Whether it’s a scene with no dialogue and it’s all about his facial expressions, or if he’s speaking.
Michael Fassbender is one of my favorite actors. Whether he is playing the good guy or the bad guy, you forget it’s him and get caught up in his performance. He does a stellar job playing the terrible Edwin Epps. Whenever I watch a movie with him, it makes me want to go on a Fassbender binge and just watch all his stuff.
Lupita N’yong’o gives an amazing performance as Patsy. It was her first feature film and she won an academy award for it and has since become a well-known actress starring in many movies.
Paul Dano‘s character is horrible, but I wish he was in it more because he is such a great actor and so underrated. He has a slightly bigger role in the book. They took the two times he tries to kill Solomon and role it into one.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays William Ford and his role was also lessened in the movie. He does a good job, my only complaint with his character is actually with the script because they changed him a bit. But I’ll get into the details down below.
Sarah Paulson plays Mrs. Epps and shows the vengefulness of her character. She got the role because when watching the audition tapes, McQueen’s daughter said to pick Paulson because she was scary. And I would agree.
Brad Pitt has a brief role but good. He helped produce the movie and said it was easier to get it produced by being in it.
A small difference is that Solomon had three kids, in the movie he only has two. In the beginning of his enslavement, there’s a scene that shows what he is currently going through, and then shows a flashback to life in New York. I thought that was well done and showed the contrast between his life at home and his life now.
When on the boat taking him to New Orleans, he is talking with two other men and they plan an escape. In the book, the escape plan is thrown out when one of the men get small pox and dies. In the movie, he tries to stop a white man from taking advantage of one of the women, and the white guy stabs him. They made it a bit more dramatic in the movie by having him die that way. When they then land in New Orleans, the other guy has people there to claim him because he was taken wrongfully. Solomon writes that it was a tender scene to watch, but that he was disheartened that no one was there for him. In the movie, he seems much more shaken up to be left by the man he befriended on the trip over.
Another small difference, when he is up for sale at New Orleans, he is with a woman named Eliza and her two children. In the book, her son is sold the day prior, then later Ford comes to buy Solomon and Eliza and she begs him to also buy her daughter since she has already been separated from one of her children. In the movie, the sale of her son happens basically at the same time as Ford buying her. But just as in the book, the slave seller refuses to sell her daughter, saying in a few years he will be able to sell her for so much more.
Speaking of Eliza, in both the book and movie, she is inconsolable about being separated from her children. Solomon talks to her in the book, but they never argue. Where in the movie he yells at her to stop crying. In the movie Ford’s wife gets tired of her crying and sells her, at least I assume that’s what happened because she is taken off. In the book Ford keeps her, though she starts out working in the house but due to her crying is moved to work out in the fields. Then later we find she eventually dies because she simply doesn’t have the will to live.
With Ford’s wife, she isn’t really spoken of much in the book, but in the movie, she is very heartless and dislikeable. In the movie, she tells Eliza not to worry, and in due time she’ll forget about her children. In the book she actually tried to comfort Eliza and Ford tells her they won’t make her work hard and they she’ll get to work in the great house rather than outside.
Ford also is less likeable in the movie than the book. In the book, Solomon actually has a good experience with him-as good experience as you can being someone’s slave. One of the biggest changes, is in the movie Solomon tells Ford that he is a free man who has been kidnapped. Ford, however, has already sold him to someone else and says there is nothing he can do. In the book, Solomon never told Ford this. He actually regretted not confiding in him, because he felt Ford would have actually helped. At the time though it seemed too risky to tell anyone the truth for fear of being brutally whipped or killed.
One other thing with Ford, in the movie he gives him a violin, in the book Solomon has a violin but I don’t know how he gets it. He had one when he went down to Washington, but I highly doubt he was able to keep that one once kidnapped. So, he does get one somehow, but I don’t know if it says how he gets it or if it is given to him.
We later meet Tibeats, who works for Ford as a carpenter. In the book, Ford eventually has to give Solomon to Tibeats, because Ford is in debt and has no other way to pay him. In the movie Tibeats never officially owns Solomon. There were also two times Tibeats tries to kill Solomon. Once, like the movie shows, when Solomon takes control of Tibeats and beats him himself. The other time, which isn’t in the movie, happens because Tibeats says he isn’t applying the boards right-which this scene is what starts the fight in the movie so they kind of combined both fits in one. Anyway, Tibeats has a hatchet the second time and comes at him. Solomon gets the hatchet and tosses it out of reach and wrestles him to the ground. After doing that, for fear of what will happen, he runs through the swamps for about two days and one night to get back to Ford’s plantation. Once there he told Ford what happened, and Ford gave him food and let him rest. He stayed there for four days, giving Tibeats time to cool off, then Ford went with back with him.
When they got to Tibeats, Ford suggested he loan Solomon out or sell him, seeing as how Tibeats hated him. So eventually Tibeats does sell him to Epps.
Once sold to Edwin Epps, it shows Epps reading the scriptures to them and using the verses he’s reading as an example of how a slave is supposed to obey his master. In the book, Epps didn’t read scriptures to them. Ford did, in just a regular way, not a condescending way. Then there was a time Tibeats loaned him out to another plantation owner named Peter Tanner, and he was the one that read scripture to them in the way that Epps is portrayed doing in the movie. Aside from that, the movie shows Epps accurately as described in the book.
Mrs. Epps is also a cruel woman, though her harsh feelings are generally reserved for Patsy. This is shown in the movie, though she also just seems like a poisonous woman who isn’t nice at all. In the book, Solomon says that she had some good qualities, and had she not married Epps, could have been a decent woman. She even cried when Solomon was taken away at the end of the book. But she was very cruel to Patsy out of jealousy. In the movie it doesn’t really show Epps whipping her, but in the book, he often did. Mrs. Epps would get him to do it, and he would go along with it with no complaints. In the movie he only whips her the one time, granted it’s a brutal whipping, but in the book that happened more often.
A change with Patsy was the added scene where she asks Solomon to kill her because she can’t do it herself. From when I watched this movie in 2013, this was one of the main scenes I remembered. N’yong’o gives such a heartbreaking performance. However, in real life Patsy never asked that of Solomon. He even says that in the beginning, Patsy had a relatively cheerful disposition. It wasn’t until the brutal whipping when coming back from Shaw’s plantation that truly broke her and from then on was always downcast.
The book is obviously written through Solomon’s perspective, and isn’t written as a novel but a memoir. He says that Epps takes advantage of Patsy, but he of course never details it because he never saw it firsthand. The movie is entirely shown through the perspective of Solomon, except one scene where it does show Epps and Patsy. There isn’t any nudity, but it is still of course an uncomfortable scene to watch and I think it could have been left out. There’s ways they could have shown it, without really showing it. It’s thought that a scene is more powerful when it’s directly showing something, but there’s ways McQueen could have let us know what was happening, without showing it, and still make it a powerful scene.
Near the end we meet Bass, who saves Solomon by writing a letter to people up north. In the book, he and Solomon met at night in the woods, because it wasn’t safe for them to risk being seen talking with each other. They met up a number of times, Solomon giving him various names of people who knew him and where they lived. They also talked to each other about their lives and Bass, who was getting on in age, vowed to help him be free before he died.
When the man does come to the plantation to get Solomon, it wasn’t the shop owner, but a man by the name of Northrup who had owned Solomon’s dad and had given his dad his freedom. It also didn’t happen as fast as it did in the book. They went to the field and asked him questions to ensure it was him, then they went inside and spoke with Epps. This gave time for the other slaves to come up and ask him what was going on and if it was all true and share how happy they were for him.
I mentioned some scenes they left out above, but here are some other unrelated parts that weren’t shown.
Solomon actually spent 8 years being overseer for Epps. Overseers on his plantation were expected to use the whip often, and Solomon became very skilled and pantomiming it, and the person getting “whipped” would act in pain. When Epps came by, they would sometime comment how “Platt” (when he became a slave, his named was changed to Platt) was whipping them too much, just loud enough for Epps to hear.
Also, Epps has at least one son. Solomon talks about the boy, who is about 10 years old, riding on his pony, ordering the salves about and possibly carrying a whip (though I don’t remember specifically). Seeing the the next generation being raised up, and being trained to be cruel.
Solomon’s family also had known he was sold into slavery. Clemens, the man he met on the boat got word to them. But they didn’t know where he was sold to, and Clemens wasn’t there to know that he was no being called Platt. While on the boat there was sailor who helped him by providing pen and ink, which he used to write a letter to his family himself. The sailor mailed the letter and it did get delivered to them, but once again, it didn’t provide enough information.
During Christmas slaves were given days off to celebrate the holidays. On Epps plantation he gave them three days, but other owners would give as many as six. They would meet up with slaves from neighboring plantations and have a dinner and dance. This is talked about as being the best time of the year that they all look forward to and is a happy time. They didn’t show this at all in the movie and I wish they would have. It would have lightened it up a bit to see a time when they got to get out and have fun.
There is also a section in the book I thought was really interesting, but isn’t quite shown in the book. Solomon says that a lot of the white people in the south had a lower regard for life in general, saying:
“Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other, more like savages than civilized and enlightened beings. The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave-be holding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin-it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.”
After Publishing His Memoir
After he published his memoir he would speak at conventions supporting the abolitionist movement. Part of his book was also included in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1850 and was an anti-slavery novel. When it was release, southerner’s criticized it saying she was exaggerating, and there wasn’t any truth to it. She then released The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, subtitled ‘Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded together with corroborative statements verifying the truth of the work’ which proved that slavery truly is as bad as her first book showed.
Right after being rescued, the owners of the slave pen were put on trial for his kidnap. They created a made up story that claimed they didn’t know he was a freeman, and at the time it wasn’t legal for a black man to testify against a white man, so they got away with it. After the release of his book, a judge recognized the description of the two men who tricked him into thinking they were circus performers, and they did end up getting prosecuted. So that’s something at least.
About five years after his memoir was published, Solomon seemingly disappears from history. In 1858 there were rumors that he was sold back into slavery, but that is unlikely since he was near 50. Plus, the Civil War started in 1861, just a short time later. We don’t know what happened to him, or when, where or how he died.
Book or movie?
The book and the movie are both really good. I prefer the book slightly more, and think it is one everyone should read. If you aren’t a book person though, then the movie follows it closely enough that a lot can be gained by watching it. By learning of the horrible things that have happened to others-whether it be slavery, the Holocaust, or someone’s individual suffering, I think it gives us greater sympathy for those around us. it also helps put our own suffering into perspective. Not to say we aren’t allowed to suffer, since what we are going through isn’t as bad. Everyone suffers, just in different ways. A good way to cope with your own suffering is to get outside of yourself and help others, or even just reading a book (or watching a movie) about the sufferings of others helps us remember we are certainly not the only ones in the world going though hard things.